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5 tips to make your personal knowledge management system feel more effortless

You might have started exploring the world of personal knowledge management and digital note taking as a way to try to deal with feeling busy and overwhelmed. But sometimes building a personal knowledge management system can feel like it’s only adding to your information overload– which feels like it utterly defeats the point.

If you’re starting to feel like building a personal knowledge management system and taking digital notes is becoming a full-time job, give yourself permission to make personal knowledge management feel a bit more effortless. Here are five tips, based on the principles of the Calmer Notes method, to simplify and streamline your digital note taking workflow.

Capture imperfectly.

This lovely book was sent to me by someone who used some of my Unsplash photos and wanted to say thank you. It’s a great read - thank you Beth!

A desire for perfection can get the better of us all. We want to have the perfect tagging system, the perfect folder system, a perfect template to make all of our notes accessible, thoroughly connected via by directional links, and so on. (And if this is something you have the time, effort, and interest to do, by all means enjoy mindfully embracing this as a hobby or part-time project.) But if you’re feeling pressed for time? Low on energy and margin? Sometimes, focusing on creating a perfect, highly-optimized personal knowledge management system can end up with us capturing no notes whatsoever.

Experiment with capturing a rough version

The next time you have an idea, or come across an interesting quote that you want to save, try just capturing it as a rough version. Don’t worry about what you’re titling it, how you’re going to organize it, or how you’re going to cite it. All of those things can come later. Once you develop a daily routine in the habit of capturing and creating notes in your personal knowledge management system, you will start to recognize the themes in categories to naturally develop. When you have time in space, you can play with different categorization techniques and way whether folders or tags are best for you. Give yourself permission to start capturing ideas and knowledge imperfectly, knowing that you can always build from there.

Remember, you can’t optimize a blank page.

Get clear on your note taking goals.

The Internet is full of inspiring, impressive personal knowledge management system setups. I enjoy looking at those myself, to get ideas and inspiration from other workflows that I might be able to adapt for my own purposes.

But it can be dangerous to try to fully adopt another person’s PKM setup structure without taking time to get clear on our own specific purpose for creating a personal knowledge management system in the first place. If you admire someone else’s work, or consider them to be particularly productive or impressive, it can be tempting to think that you could achieve the same things as they have, if only you adopted their style of personal knowledge management.

I feel strongly that personal knowledge management is an intensely personal matter. Everybody’s life looks different. Everybody’s brain works differently. Everybody has different challenges and strengths. As a result, there is no one single ideal personal knowledge management setup that is going to work for everyone. But sometimes beginners, or even more experienced PKM practitioners, can fall victim to the thought that there is one ideal PKM set up that exists, if only they could find it.

There is no single holy grail when it comes to personal knowledge management. There are many different ways to organize notes and files, and all of them can be incredibly beneficial for the right person. At the same time, all of them can be detrimental for the wrong person.

I have confidence that you know yourself best. You know your own preferences, limitations, goals, and constraints. Look around for inspiration. Find what fits… and confidently leave the rest.

If this sort of customized, personalized approach to personal knowledge management sounds like a breath of fresh air, you might enjoy my course on personal knowledge management. Calmer Notes takes you through a step-by-step approach to creating your own unique, bespoke, completely tailored personal knowledge management system. No two students using the Calmer Notes method will end up with the same PKM system. The Calmer Notes framework will help you go through a process to design a system that fits your unique goals and life at this moment.

Use bullet points, headings, and point form to scaffold your notes.

These are the tools we use everyday to do our creative work

Thoughts rarely spring fully formed in beautiful prose. Sure, if you’re thinking about a subject you know well, you may be able to capture thoughts and reflections comfortably in full sentences off the cuff.

Use bullet-points and headngs to chunk information and create intellectual scaffolding

But if you’re learning something new, or trying to bring together desperate ideas, it can be helpful to chunk information. This can include using bullet points, nest of bullet points, and multiple heading levels. Particularly when you’re trying to understand new concepts, creating that sort of intellectual scaffolding can be incredibly valuable both in the present time and down the road.

Using nested bullets and nested headings can make it easier to scan for information in the future. You’ll also be including relevant keywords that you can use via full text search in your note taking app.

Additionally, using bullet points and outlining takes some of the pressure off. You don’t have to feel like you’re creating an article or blog post or book chapter whenever you capture something in your personal knowledge management system. It’s meant to be an arena for ideas, for rough thoughts, for sketching things out, for building yourself a growing mind garden. You may well use these thoughts down the road after you’ve had a chance to polish them. But at the start, your PKM system should be like seeds that you’re planting to grow your knowledge down the road.

Choose an app you can use on all your devices.

iPhone Mock Scene

Take stock of all the places that you might be when you have an idea that you want to capture in your personal knowledge management system.

  • Are you at your work computer?
  • On your laptop at home?
  • Out and about using your phone?

Choose one central, reliable spot you can access anywhere

Your personal knowledge management system needs to be universal and ubiquitous if you want it to feel more effortless. This means that your notes need to be universally accessible (whatever that means for you and your own situation).

If you find yourself capturing your notes in ten different apps, it might be because you don’t have one central trust a reliable spot that you can easily access all the places that you need to capture notes.

Choose your note taking app to match your work environment(s)

For example:

  • If you regularly want to capture notes on your work computer, which is Windows based, but you use an iPad, MacBook, and iPhone at home, you might want to explore cross-platform options like Evernote or Obsidian.
  • Depending on your work environment, you might ultimately decide that a web-based note taking program, like Notion or Roam Research, best fits your workflow.
  • If you use exclusively Microsoft apps at work, and your tablet is a Surface, Microsoft OneNote might make the most sense for you.
  • If you’re exclusively on the Apple ecosystem, you might choose Mac-only apps with easy sync to iPhone and iPad, such as Bear Notes or Craft Docs.  

There is no one right answer to finding the perfect note taking setup. The only thing you need to worry about is finding a note taking app that is perfect for your right-now life.

Embrace voice-to-text dictation.


Even for those of us who are very swift typists, we can usually speak more quickly. Even if it’s not a matter of speed, using a computer to capture the words we’re saying can help free up some cognitive load.

Use voice dictation to simplify the capture process

Using voice to text can remove a barrier to capturing ideas and getting a rough draft out on paper. If we’re tired, or have a Zoom migraine, or want to get out some ideas while we’re simultaneously folding laundry or going for a walk, voice-to-text allows us to capture thoughts with somewhere around 80 to 90% accuracy.

Yes, we will likely need to go back and review the transcript to make sure that the key points were captured, but I’ve been impressed recently with the relative reliability of voice to text. Sure, there are some funny typos that will need to be caught and amended, but usually the key ideas are pretty successfully captured.

You can use the voice dictation feature on your iPhone or Android phone, or the voice-to-text capability of Microsoft Word, Mac, or Google Docs. If you want something more robust, you can try Otter.ai, which also captures the audio of your dictation so you can go back and double check if the transcript doesn’t make sense to you later on.

Conclusion & Next Steps

In summary, the five tips you can use to simplify your personal knowledge management system and make it feel more effortless are:

  1. Capture imperfectly
  2. Get clear on your note taking goals
  3. Use bullet points, headings, and point form to scaffold your notes.
  4. Choose an app you can use on all your devices.
  5. Embrace voice-to-text dictation.

These tips are based on the principles of the Calmer Notes method for personal knowledge management. If you’re looking for a considered, mindful, thoughtful approach to building a digital note taking system that works for your life, you might like to learn more about my own approach to building a personal knowledge management system.

Wishing you all the best on your personal knowledge management journey!

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